Thursday, October 29, 2015

Humanity and Violence

The incidents of students bringing weapons to school in order to kill classmates and teachers have become so common that it suggests a fad has emerged.  Malcolm Gladwell addresses this conjecture in an interesting article in The New Yorker: Thresholds of Violence: How school shootings catch on.  In the course of trying to explain the spread of this phenomenon he introduces the work of the sociologist Mark Granovetter.  Granovetter performed seminal work on the threshold model of collective social behavior.  One of his applications of the model involved an explanation of how generally peaceful people might get caught up in a riot and act in ways that are not consistent with their character. 

Gladwell uses this type model to study school shootings.  Here the subject will be more general with threshold models being discussed in the context of wartime violence.  If Granovetter’s logic can provide insight into how and why humans seem to be capable of mass murder, we may learn something useful about our innate nature.  The default assumption that humans have inherited a violent nature through thousands of generations of natural selection is not one to feel good about.  One would hope that our behavior has a more satisfactory explanation.  Perhaps there is one.

Most attempts to explain how people perform in a riot situation are based on the decision process of each individual.  Something has caused a participant to do things he would not normally do.  Granovettor’s approach starts with the assumption that riots are social interactions, and individuals have thresholds which determine how many people around them are necessary to participate in some act before they are induced to participate as well.  There will be a distribution of such thresholds within a population such that at one extreme there are the few individuals who have zero thresholds and act spontaneously.  At the other extreme, there will be some who might never participate.  Gladwell provides this example.

“In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. His qualms are overcome when he sees the instigator and the instigator’s accomplice….and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.”

What is driving this response according to the model is a form of peer pressure.  Individuals will respond differently to peer pressure in various situations, but few people are left unaffected by it.  Humans evolved in groups, and responses to the constraints and impulses derived from group dynamics will be part of the natural selection process.  The reaction to peer pressure is likely innate.

World War II was associated with violence at a level and a scale that defy comprehension.  The killing of the Jews in the Holocaust is the prime example, but only encompasses about half of the noncombatants who were murdered in Eastern Europe in the lands between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia.  The death camp of Auschwitz is the symbol of Nazi atrocities and provides the example of industrial efficiency in killing human beings.  The more common approach to murder was even more efficient, but much more personal.  Most Jews were killed in the regions in which they lived.  One common practice was to herd people into a building and set the structure on fire while shooting any that tried to escape. Another was to have the victims dig a trench, confiscate their valuables, and shoot them at the edge of the trench so they fell into it.  Subsequent rows of victims were brought in and executed in the same fashion until the ditch was full.  There was nothing industrial about this process.  One set of human beings spent the day shooting other human beings.  Can such practices be consistent with sane human behavior?  Rabid anti-Semitism can’t be the entire answer because non-Jewish groups were subjected to the same treatment if the ire of the Nazis was aroused.  By what mechanism could people with no history of violence become mass murderers?

Consider an incident described by Niall Ferguson in his book War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West.  German Reserve Battalion 101 arrived for duty at a small town in eastern Poland.  It was assigned the task of eliminating a group of Jews that had been assembled.  The healthy males were to be sent to slave labor camps, while the remainder, “the sick, the elderly, the women and children,” were to be taken into the forest and shot.

“Reserve Battalion 101 was not a hardened group of Nazi fanatics.  Most of the 486 men came from working class and lower middle-class neighborhoods of Hamburg.  On the average, they were older than the men in front-line units.  Over half were aged between thirty-seven and forty-two.  Very few were members of the Nazi Party….They were, without a doubt, just ordinary Germans.  They were also willing executioners.”

Their commander gave the soldiers the option of assuming other duties if they felt they could not perform this task.  Only a few opted out.  More withdrew after the killing began, but most were able to continue until all the victims were dead.  Since these men were at this point amateurs, they killed in the most straightforward way they knew.  Their job was to put a bullet in the back of the head of each man, woman, and child.  Most of these “ordinary Germans” were able to spend seventeen hours driving people to forest and executing them, while at the same time getting splattered with blood, bone chips and human tissue.

If one refuses to believe that in the space of a decade or so the majority of the German population became psychotic killers, how might this behavior be explained?  Ferguson leaves us with a suggestion.

“Another interpretation, based in large measure on post-war testimony, is that these ‘ordinary men’ were well aware that what they were doing was wrong, but suppressed their qualms because of a mixture of deference to authority….and peer-group pressure.”

So we return to peer pressure as a mechanism for generating violence—and we add deference to authority as another component.  We have already suggested that the response to peer pressure could be innate.  Could deference to authority also be an innate response?

Anthropologists tell us that humans and chimpanzees once followed the same evolutionary line.  Chimpanzee groups form a hierarchical chain of dominance among both males and females.  Once a chimp’s position in the hierarchy is established (often with a bit of violence) it is expected to defer to the higher ranking chimps.  One could interpret this behavior as “deference to authority.”  Could some residue of this behavior pattern persist in the human genome and provide us with a tendency to respond positively to orders from figures of authority?

Let us proceed further with the thought that peer pressure and deference to authority are innate human characteristics.  What might this imply for our response to threatening situations?  It has long been believed that humans (and chimps) are programmed to view other groups as a potential threat that must be repulsed with some form of action.  In the human context, this has been used as an explanation for strife between races and between ethnic groups.

It is the differentness of “the other” that generates a response that appears to be hatred.  However, in the case of chimpanzees there are no other races or ethnicities, there are only other groups.  “The other” differs only in being not a member of the group.  Is it not reasonable to then assume that chimpanzees respond based on fear for the health of their group not out of hatred for another group?  In an environment where food resources are always strained, conflicts at the boundaries of group domains are inevitable.  However, it might be a mistake to imply an offensive motive to what may be a defensive tactic.  One can interpret chimp behavior as an evolutionary strategy designed to protect the integrity of the group.

Let us proceed with the notion that humans have an innate respect for authority, respond strongly to peer pressure, and are motivated not by hatred of “the other,” but by the need to protect their group. 

Ferguson tried to characterize the conditions under which violence has broken out in the twentieth century.  He concluded that one could attribute the onset of violence to three factors: ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and empires in decline.  The worst violence of World War II occurred in regions situated between Germany and Russia, including Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine.  These were regions with uncertain national boundaries and a great deal of ethnic mixing.  For example, the boundary between Poland and Ukraine was moved eastward after World War I.  This insured a good mixture of Poles in the lands claimed by Ukrainian nationalists, and many Ukrainians in lands claimed by Polish nationalists.  The area in dispute was also invaded by Stalin, then invaded by Hitler, and finally reinvaded by Stalin.  The chaos provided an opportunity for the two ethnic groups to try to exert authority in order to support claims to the land.  As a consequence there were rather bloody conflicts that occurred between Poles and Ukrainians.  Does this mean that Ukrainians who murdered Poles did it because they hated the ethnic Poles because they were different from them, or because they were doing what they thought was necessary to protect their own ethnic group?

Timothy Snyder produced an awesome history of this region: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.  He provided this insight into what motivates people to violence: a feeling of victimhood.

“No major war or act of mass killing in the twentieth century began without the aggressors or perpetrators first claiming innocence and victimhood….The human capacity for subjective victimhood is apparently limitless, and people who believe they are victims can be motivated to perform acts of great violence.”

Isn’t this just another way of saying that violence will be resorted to when people feel their “group” is being threatened.  Even Hitler used victimhood to justify his aggressions and his desire to kill Jews.  He claimed that Germany was under siege by Jewish-led capitalists and Jewish-led communists.  Jews had to die in order that Germans might live.

Consider one more example of effective incitement to violence.  When the military wishes to prepare soldiers for war fighting, they do not focus on hatred of the enemy as the prime motivation.  In the training and indoctrination, the focus is on the importance and integrity of the individual’s war fighting group.  Protect your group from harm!

To the degree that we can argue that humans are programmed to defend their groups rather than programmed to fear and hate people unlike themselves, we have succeeded in presenting humans as a more benign species better able to proceed along a sustainable path.  The prevention of violence then is not a matter of maintaining barriers between dissimilar people, but rather the maintenance of stable societal and political entities that do not feel threatened.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Higher Education: Privileged Whites versus Asian-Americans

An interesting article appeared recently in The Economist titled The model minority is losing patience.  The minority referred to is that of Asian-Americans.  Considerable background and historical data are provided in the article, but here we will focus on Asian-Americans and higher education.

One indisputable fact about this group is that they perform rather well academically.

“….49% of Asian-Americans have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 28% of the general population. Whereas Asian-Americans make up 5.6% of the population of the United States, according to the complaint to the Department of Education they make up more than 30% of the recent American maths and physics Olympiad teams and Presidential Scholars, and 25-30% of National Merit Scholarships. Among those offered admission in 2013 to New York’s most selective public high schools, Stuyvesant High School and Bronx High School of Science, 75% and 60% respectively were Asian. The Asian population of New York City is 13%.”

Not surprisingly, Asian-Americans expect their hard work to be rewarded with admission to elite universities.  Consider the experience of one young over-achiever.

“Michael Wang, a young Californian, came second in his class of 1,002 students; his ACT score was 36, the maximum possible; he sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration; he got third place in a national piano contest; he was in the top 150 of a national maths competition; he was in several national debating-competition finals. But when it came to his university application he faced a serious disappointment for the first time in his glittering career. He was rejected by six of the seven Ivy League colleges to which he applied.”

Wang was angry after noting that less-accomplished students were being accepted while he was being rejected.  He and others who found themselves facing the same situation filed a complaint of racial discrimination with the Department of Education.  Could racial discrimination be involved?  The Economist provided this interesting chart.

Note that Caltech (California Institute of Technology), a private school that is extremely selective in admissions, has an undergraduate population that recognizes the academic achievements of Asian-Americans and has allowed the number accepted to increase in proportion to the population of possible applicants.  California’s public universities are not allowed to consider race in selecting for college admission, but they are allowed to consider economic hardship.  The University of California at Berkeley is the flagship for the UC system.  It also has an Asian-American enrollment fraction similar to Caltech’s at 41%.

Compare the California schools with the Ivy League schools included in the chart.  After some dispersion in Asian-American enrollment in the 1990s, the schools have settled into a near constant 15% over the last decade, while the Asian-American population has tripled.  One cannot legally prove discrimination unless the perpetrator actually admits to discriminatory behavior, but it is obviously occurring when one looks at that chart.  In fact, it would seem that the schools are also acting in collusion in their discriminatory practices.

The problem is that elite private universities might advertise themselves as non-profit institutions, but they are as aggressive in enhancing revenue as any other business.  Their business model is based on graduating students who will make a lot of money and contribute some fraction of it back to the university (traditionally, wealthy whites).  Academic achievement is of less importance than being the child of wealthy parents, particularly wealthy alumni.  In other words, wealthy white people must receive their percentage of the slots.  After one adds in children of alumni, athletes, and affirmative action candidates, the slots for those who only have high achievement to offer must be limited.

The Economist recognizes all these factors, but chooses to highlight affirmative action as the issue that Asian-Americans must contend with.

“Racial prejudice of the sort that Jews faced may or may not be part of the problem, but affirmative action certainly is. Top universities tend to admit blacks and Hispanics with lower scores because of their history of disadvantage….Since the Ivies will not stop giving places to the privileged, because their finances depend on the generosity of the rich, the argument homes in on affirmative action.”

Fortunately, most people do not buy this con because Asian-Americans can remember the not too distant past when they were racially discriminated against in this country.

“But the Asian-American community is unwilling on the whole to oppose affirmative action. It tends to vote Democratic, and many of its members recall the years when they were a despised, not a model, minority. So those who dislike the way the system works tend to argue for it to be adjusted, not abolished; and some say that Asians should actually support it.”

The basic problem for the Asian-Americans, and for the nation as a whole, is that we have allowed a few revenue-maximizing corporations to claim they provide the standard for excellence in education.  Such a situation inevitably breeds economic inequality—inequality that actually seems boundless.

The Economist provides an example of how this works in practice in the legal field.

“Recruiters at the top firms typically throw out applications from all but the top universities and scan the remainder for their extracurriculars, says Lauren Rivera of Northwestern University. ‘They’re particularly interested in sports, such as lacrosse, squash and [rowing] crew’.”

These are the sports of rich white people, not those of minorities and the economically disadvantaged.

We would be better off if we could have gone back to the beginning and ruled that all college education must be publically provided—and that it must be affordable.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Evaluating the Future—and Managing It

We are frequently told that information technology has been and will be leading us to a grand and glorious future where innovative applications will provide us with wondrous new things.  Yet at the same time, many of us who have been around for a long time have observed some rather disconcerting trends.  Jobs that used to last for decades now last years—provided one is lucky enough to have an actual job and not a contingent assignment.  A college education was once a passport to a position with job security and the expectation of rising wages.  Now a college education is often a passport to a position that was once performed by high school graduates, and the financial reward is derived not from rising wages but from the fact that high school graduates’ prospects are falling faster than those of college degree holders.  There is a narrowing educational door through which fewer and fewer highly skilled people are admitted.  Wealth is being accumulated ever more quickly, but concentrated in fewer people.  We seem to be moving in a direction where wealth determines political power.  How does society benefit in any way from these developments?

Are these the concerns of one who is too resistant to change?  Or is there in fact something deceptive and harmful in what technology is doing to society?

Martin Wolf provided some interesting insights into what has been transpiring in an article in Foreign Affairs: Same as It Ever Was.  He signals where he is headed by providing this subtitle:

“Why the Techno-optimists Are Wrong”

According to classical economic reasoning, increases in wages will naturally follow from increases in productivity of workers as the bounty from this increase is shared between labor and capital.  Therefore, if one wishes to claim a new “industrial revolution” based on information technology, one should be able to indicate gains in productivity as evidence.  Wolf points out that during the supposed “revolution” the rate of gain in productivity has actually been falling.

“In reality, the pace of economic and social transformation has slowed in recent decades, not accelerated. This is most clearly shown in the rate of growth of output per worker. The economist Robert Gordon, doyen of the skeptics, has noted that the average growth of U.S. output per worker was 2.3 percent a year between 1891 and 1972. Thereafter, it only matched that rate briefly, between 1996 and 2004. It was just 1.4 percent a year between 1972 and 1996 and 1.3 percent between 2004 and 2012.”

“On the basis of these data, the age of rapid productivity growth in the world’s frontier economy is firmly in the past, with only a brief upward blip when the Internet, e-mail, and e-commerce made their initial impact.”

Perhaps one way to differentiate between the second industrial revolution of the past century and the presumed current one is that the past provided access to things that were desperately needed, while the current one must first create a desire for the products it provides.

“Just consider the shift from a world without telephones to one with them, or from a world of oil lamps to one with electric light. Next to that, who cares about Facebook or the iPad? Indeed, who really cares about the Internet when one considers clean water and flushing toilets?”

If one wishes to consider what a real technological revolution is, consider this statement that Wolf provides from the economist Robert Gordon:

“Electric light and a workable internal combustion engine were invented in a three-month period in late 1879. The number of municipal waterworks providing fresh running water to urban homes multiplied tenfold between 1870 and 1900. The telephone, phonograph, and motion pictures were all invented in the 1880s.”

Those who promote a “third industrial revolution” claim that economic statistics do not capture the added value provided by recent innovations.  A smartphone, for example, is worth much more than its sale value.  Wolf will have none of this.

“These points are correct. But they are nothing new: all of this has repeatedly been true since the nineteenth century. Indeed, past innovations generated vastly greater unmeasured value than the relatively trivial innovations of today.”

A true revolution must generate enormous social and economic benefits to the world.

“The motor vehicle eliminated vast quantities of manure from urban streets. The refrigerator prevented food from becoming contaminated. Clean running water and vaccines delivered drastic declines in child mortality rates. The introduction of running water, gas and electric cookers, vacuums, and washing machines helped liberate women from domestic labor. The telephone removed obstacles to speedy contact with the police, fire brigades, and ambulance services. The discovery of electric light eliminated forced idleness. Central heating and air conditioning ended discomfort. The introduction of the railroad, the steam ship, the motor car, and the airplane annihilated distance.”

Wolf grants that computers, the internet, and related goods are very important, but he fails to find anything that generated beneficial changes comparable to those produced in the last century.  In fact, one can make the argument that the information age has been at least partially responsible for the range of ills discussed at the beginning of this article.

“Yet perhaps paradoxically, recent technological progress might still have had some important effects on the economy, and particularly the distribution of income, even if its impact on the size of the economy and overall standards of living has been relatively modest. The information age coincided with—and must, to some extent, have caused—adverse economic trends: the stagnation of median real incomes, rising inequality of labor income and of the distribution of income between labor and capital, and growing long-term unemployment.”

The information age has also contributed to the ease with which jobs and factories could be eliminated from local economies and shipped elsewhere.  The net result for a country like the United States is that products have become cheaper, but wages have been driven lower while the basics of education, housing, and healthcare have become much more expensive.

The basic premise of the information age is that machines and computer-driven logic can perform many tasks better than humans.  Therefore, working humans will be replaced as they become obsolete.  Where this process ends, no one knows.   There are still those economists who will claim that new technologies always create more jobs than they destroy.  This belief seems to be based on the observation that the last industrial revolution drove people from farms and into our large urban areas—and provided them with jobs and prosperity (eventually).  But that has already happened.  It can’t happen again, so where are these new jobs going to come from?

The hallmark of the information age is that successful companies can be produced quickly with little need for physical capital and even less need for employees.  A handful of people can create something that generates enormous revenues (think Facebook).  Great wealth can be created without the need to share it with anything so old fashioned as employees.  Where is the modern counterpart to the auto industry that generated a world-wide network of suppliers of parts and services and employed millions?

Wolf provides an interesting discussion of where we might be heading.  His main point is that technology does not have a life of its own.  It does not have the right to wander wherever it wishes and create or destroy whatever it chooses.  Not all activity is progress, and not all efficiencies and innovations are beneficial.

“….new technologies bring good and bad. We must believe we can shape the good and manage the bad.”

Innovation emerging from the current digital era has enormous potential to allow people to live better lives.

“….we will have to reconsider leisure. For a long time, the wealthiest lived a life of leisure at the expense of the toiling masses. The rise of intelligent machines would make it possible for many more people to live such lives without exploiting others. Today’s triumphant puritanism finds such idleness abhorrent. Well then, let people enjoy themselves busily. What else is the true goal of the vast increases in prosperity we have created?

However, a more expected result is less encouraging.

“It is also possible that the ultimate result might be a tiny minority of huge winners and a vast number of losers. But such an outcome would be a choice, not a destiny. Techno-feudalism is unnecessary. Above all, technology itself does not dictate the outcomes. Economic and political institutions do. If the ones we have do not give the results we want, we will need to change them.”

We have a choice before us.  We can use our ability to create wealth to produce a society where leisure takes up an ever greater fraction of our time.  We would of course have to re-educate ourselves in order to be able to use that time to provide ourselves some satisfaction.

Or, we could conclude that it would be better to create a society where there was a true full-employment program.  As we watch our shabby infrastructure become ever shabbier, it is not difficult to envisage tasks that need to be done.  Jobs could be created in the arts, sciences, and various service areas that would be beneficial to society.

Both options will produce better results than would occur if we do nothing.  What is necessary is a vast redistribution in wealth.  Society can make that happen.  It would be democracy in action.  Wolf provides us with a reminder of what the rights of society include.

“Property rights are a social creation. The idea that a small minority should overwhelmingly benefit from new technologies should be reconsidered. It would be possible, for example, for the state to obtain an automatic share of the income from the….property it protects.”

Martin Wolf is Chief Economics Commentator for the Financial Times.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Brain, Intelligence, and Infections: Neglected Tropical Diseases

The world is a dangerous place.  Humans live in constant contact with a mixture of bacteria, viruses and parasites.  Evolution and modern hygiene have provided us with the means to coexist with those that are helpful and usually survive encounters with most of the ones that are not.  Unfortunately, victory in this conflict is unattainable because dangerous elements are constantly changing form.  Flu and the common cold are caused by viruses that are constantly mutating into different species.  By disturbing ecologies we encounter additional threats that must be dealt with.  Encounters with new diseases should be expected.

Harriet A. Washington has provided us with an indication of what we should expect in an article in The American Scholar: The Well Curve.  She focuses on diseases that can affect brain function and begins by providing a few recent discoveries as examples.

“In 1987, more than 100 Canadians developed….symptoms after dining on tainted mussels harvested off Prince Edward Island. Short-term memory loss accompanied vomiting and diarrhea. The victims also became disoriented and aggressive and finally were wracked by prolonged crying jags. This new disease, christened “amnesiac shellfish poisoning,” was caused by….several species of Pseudo-nitzschia algae. The algae produce domoic acid, a powerful neurotoxin that destroys the ability to make memories and thrives in algal blooms—popularly called red tides—that are incubated by warm weather.”

“Domoic acid resembles a form of the neurotransmitter glutamate so closely that sufferers’ brains could not discern the difference as it passed through the blood-brain barrier to cause confusion, disorientation, seizure, coma, and sometimes death. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary scientists announced a red tide recurrence as recently as June, followed by a mass die-off of infected anchovies, which also threatened their mammalian predators, including man.”

A more recent discovery is even more troubling—a virus that affects algae that somehow learned how to infect humans.

“Investigators from Johns Hopkins, Baltimore’s Sheppard Pratt Health System, and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln were startled to find a previously unsuspected virus, Acanthocystis turfacea chlorella virus 1, or ATCV-1, lurking in the throats of two of every five of their Baltimore research subjects.”

The researchers who made this discovery were involved in investigating physical attributes that might affect mental processes.  They were deeply troubled by what they learned.

“But the study’s baseline cognitive tests unveiled the true shocker. When compared with those who did not harbor the virus, those infected were about 10 percent slower to make calculations and had a reduced attention span, suggesting that the virus compromised their ability to calculate, to focus, and to process visual information—disadvantages in the classroom, on the job, and in other familiar learning situations.”

“The lowered mental functioning was independent of potentially confounding factors, including age, socioeconomic status, education, place of birth, or smoking status. Gender and race made no difference. Repeating this experiment in a larger population yielded the same results, and when the research team tested mice before and after exposing them to the virus, they found 1,000 gene changes in brain regions known to be important to memory and learning. These infected mice also took 10 percent longer to navigate a maze and showed reduced attention spans, compared with the uninfected controls.”

These findings were newsworthy because they occurred in wealthy western countries.  Meanwhile, in poorer counties where health surveillance and treatment are inadequate, infection by pathogens thought to harm brain development or function are common.  It is these diseases that most concern the author.  In fact she begins her piece with this warning.

“Tropical diseases are undermining intellectual development in countries with poor health care—and they’re coming here next.”

Washington gathers evidence to support the notion that racial or ethnic differences in the measurement of what wealthy western countries refer to as IQ (not to be confused with intelligence itself) can be explained by socioeconomic and biomedical factors such as the frequency of infection by diseases known to affect cognitive performance.

“This take on race, intelligence, illness, and poverty is the exact opposite of hereditarian screeds, from Arthur Jensen’s ‘Thirty Years of Research on Black-White Differences in Cognitive Ability’ to Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve to J. Philippe Rushton’s musings on race, intelligence, and penis size. These broadsides and their refutation have dominated the public debate on race and intelligence. The authors’ theories rest on several articles of faith. One is that intelligence, measured by IQ tests, is largely genetic and varies in a racial hierarchy, with Asians or Caucasians usually occupying the apex and various African groups located at the bottom.”

Her choice of title, The Well Curve,’ is indicative of her disdain for the work of the mentioned writers.  Her faith is in the work of others.

“….pathogens that affect cognition have traditionally infected poor people of color in the developing world, so their ravages and long-term effects have been more likely to go unanalyzed and untreated. In developing countries, points out Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, infection by such pathogens is the norm, not a headline-worthy exception.”

“Studies like a 2010 report from Randy Thornhill, an evolutionary biologist at the University of New Mexico, and a 2011 research study from Carleton University in Ottawa, have strongly correlated low average IQs from various nations with high rates of infectious disease. A 2011 article Thornhill published in the journal Intelligence calculated that, in the United States, allowing for education and wealth, “Infectious disease was the best predictor of average IQ.”

Thornhill provides an interesting explanation for how these diseases can affect brain development and function: these various bacteria, viruses, and parasites compete with the brain for meager nutritional resources.  Deficient nutrition in young children can lead to impaired brain development even without an infectious disease.

“Thornhill’s ‘parasite-stress’ theory maintains that parasites sap the brain’s energy in several ways. The newborn human brain uses fully 87 percent of the body’s “metabolic budget,” an amount that diminishes with age and maturity, and if a young brain cannot meet these initial high-energy requirements, its growth and development suffer. Microbes and larger parasites drain this energy by feeding on tissues and lodging in the digestive tract, where they siphon off nutrients and iron. Additionally, viruses divert energy from their hosts to crank out copies of themselves. This stolen energy normally would fuel brain building and other metabolic needs of the child.”

Washington refers to these diseases that afflict more than a billion people as NDTs (neglected tropical diseases). 

“….NTDs plague extremely poor denizens of the subtropics not only of sub-Saharan Africa, but also of Saudi Arabia, Brazil, India, China, Indonesia, and Mexico. They are, in the words of Peter Hotez, the dean at Baylor, ‘great disablers rather than killers’.”

The extent to which these NTDs affect cognitive performance may still be a bit controversial, but there is no arguing that they are physically and economically debilitating.  Young children who tend to be at least slightly malnourished in many of these countries can only be harmed by being required to compete with parasites for calories.

Perhaps the most interesting—and frightening— conclusion by Washington is that these types of diseases already exist in the United States.

“….tropical diseases—and their neglect—are not limited to the tropics any more. They’re now very much at home in the United States. The Big Five diseases—Chagas disease, cysticercosis, toxocariasis, toxoplasmosis, and trichomoniasis—are quite common here among the poor, Hotez says. ‘While sub-Saharan Africa accounts for many of the world’s NTDs, somewhat paradoxically, most of the world’s NTDs can be found among the poor living in wealthier countries, including the ‘Group of 20’ nations. Houston and Texas … represent ‘ground zero’ for many of America’s neglected tropical diseases’.”

Some explanation of a few of these will suffice to get one’s attention.  Cysticercosis describes what follows from an infestation of the brain by tapeworm larvae.  Tapeworms are usually associated with the digestive track, but in some cases the larvae manage to reach the brain.

“Tunneling into the brain, the larvae become encysted, cloaking themselves from the immune system with specialized tissues. Thus ensconced and unmolested by the immune system, they unleash the horribly versatile disease called cysticercosis.”

“Cases are more common than one might think. Ted Nash, chief of the gastrointestinal parasites section at the National Institutes of Health, told Discover magazine in 2012, “Minimally, there are 5 million cases of epilepsy [worldwide] from neurocysticercosis.” From 1,500 to 2,000 neurocysticercosis cases have been diagnosed in the United States when confused, unconscious, or epileptic patients are brought to the hospital and the detection of antibodies definitively identifies the disease. Cysts near the brain’s visual cortex can blind the carrier. Cysts near the language area can disrupt speech or comprehension. Cysts sometimes block the flow of cerebral fluid, causing hydrocephalus, which necessitates a shunt to relieve the pressure and prevent unconsciousness and death. All too frequently, a tapeworm cyst causes epilepsy.”

Chagas disease is a parasitic ailment that is usually delivered when the inappropriately named “kissing” bug (triatominae) defecates on the skin while sucking the blood of a person.  It is a disease whose home is in the Americas and is more prevalent in the Central American regions.

“Tropical medicine experts agree that at least 330,000 U.S. citizens have Chagas disease, the most common parasitic disease in the Americas, and estimates range as high as one million. It infects six million to seven million more people in Latin America. This chronic, silent parasitic infection leads to fatal heart or intestinal damage in two of every five sufferers, and it also causes intellectual slowing. It can be treated, but the lack of awareness by doctors in the United States means that it often isn’t.”

And then there is this summary statement.

“….taken altogether, the infections that ravage the developing world now imperil the bodies and minds of at least 14 million U.S. residents.”

It seems unavoidable that these NTDs would find a home in the United States.  Many are endemic in warm, tropical regions.  The United States is one of the few wealthy countries that possesses regions in which the climate is actually warm and tropical.  As mentioned earlier, Texas and Houston are ground zero for these types of infections.  Combine the climate with a healthcare system that has little training in recognizing these diseases, while at the same time providing subpar medical care to the poor blacks and Hispanics who are most at risk, and disease becomes inevitable.

Globalization and climate change are also at work.  Increasing temperatures encourage diseases to move northward.  Pathogens can even be carried by wind from distant continents.  The movement of people and large amounts of materials around the world in a globalized economy are not helpful in containing diseases.

Yes, the world is a dangerous place.  We should not expect that to change any time soon.
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